when i looked into your eyes, i thought i saw love. little did i know that your love was more like the cold, hard, light of a distant star than the promise of everlasting joy. looking into your eyes that day, was like looking into the past; but you are gone now, a thousand miles or a thousand years makes no difference. thought is the arrow of time and the universe is constantly expanding and every day i wake up to find you even farther away. perhaps one day, when we've reached the end of time and light, the universe will begin to contract, and i can look forward to watching you come back, and i'll have learned from my mistakes.

(this bit of lyrical prose can be blamed on the nodeshell challenge in general and yossarian and hoopy_frood in particular)

Rancho Nuevo, Late Second Era

Equivalent Earth Standard Deviation, 1989

The skies were cloudy over the realm. This was remarkable because the skies were never cloudy in Rancho Nuevo, except today they were, and the clouds were geting darker and thicker, beginning to block out the light.

"Captain, the crown wants to know how to read this."

"Look below us," the captain said as he pointed down from the top of the ramparts. There was a growing army of troops clad in red on horseback gathering silently across the river from the castle.

"What the--"

"Red riders, and more come every hour, out of nowhere. Then they just sit there in the saddle staring silently at us."

"Angel of mercy. What does this mean?"

"We are about to go to war."

"We have no army!"

"Of course not. There would be no point. With the way the numbers of riders is growing, I would say the entire realm is about to be destroyed. The board is about to be wiped clean."

"Is there nothing I can tell her grace?"

"My friend, there is about to be no queen on the golden throne. The realm will be thrown into chaos, and we will never have been here to begin with."

*  *  *  *  *

November 3, 1989

Earth Standard Deviation

The room was dark but familiar. It was somwhere in the middle of the night. Maybe it was four o'clock, he couldn't remember, but he had to find his way to the bathroom. His bladder was full.

"Where am I?" he asked himself, looking around in the dark. "Who am I?"

There is nothing like that unexpected urgent wake-up in the middle of the night to leave you dazed and confused. Still, he felt like he was sleepwalking, and that was okay. It was better not to wake up as he wanted to get back to sleep as soon as this ordeal was over.

Where am I? he asked himself again. Ah, right, the townhouse we moved to. Right. Where is she, anyway? Never made it to bed. That wasn't unusual. She had a habit of falling asleep on the couch with the television on. There was sound out in the living room, but the television wasn't on. He could see that from the doorway, so he stepped into the living room to see where the sound was coming from and to ask her if she wanted to come to bed.

She wasn't alone. Who was that? What were they doing? Oh, shit, what the fuck is happening?

*  *  *  *  *

The first time death touched me was in 1990. It came after a pair of betrayals that happened in rapid succession.

There had been other deaths, but they were older relatives I wasn't particularly close to and people I didn't know very well. This time would be different.

Her name was Terry and I'd long harbored a secret crush on her. It was her twenty-first birthday and she came out to the bar with us for the first time. I spent the night awkwardly hitting on her. When she got too drunk to drive home, I was the only one who tried to give her a ride home and keep her from driving home. No one else could be bothered. She rejected my offer purely because she believed I would use it as an opportunity to force myself on her.

And so she drove herself home drunk and didn't make it home alive. They found her car an hour later where it had driven into the concrete column of a highway overpass.

Don't you know my name... you've been so long... and I've been putting out fires... with gasoline...

*  *  *  *  *

Earth Standard Deviation, late 1992

"Don't you understand? It isn't that I don't want to marry you. I'm just not ready and this is moving too fast. You have to stop being so possessive and jealous. I'm not going anywhere."

"You can't go backwards in a relationship. Either we stay engaged or I'm ending this. I'm not getting screwed over again."

"You're getting screwed over? All I'm saying is I want to wait until we're ready..."

He gave her an ultimatum. She walked away, never wanting to, and then he spent a year and a half relentlessly pursuing her, trying to convince her at first that his way was the right way. Then he began playing at acting like the kind of man he thought she would want to be with, when she'd wanted to be with the man he was to begin with.


Rancho Nuevo, late Third Era

The final days of empire

"There are nothing but red riders around us now, Captain. They still aren't moving."

"They will. And we will remember nothing. Only the Jack remembers, and the Jack is lost."

"Never bet against the Jack when every other card on the board is a wildcard."

"Have you been back to the throne?"

"Why? It is vacant. Every card on the board is wild. Don't count the Jack out yet."

*  *  *  *  *

The Blackjack Saloon, end of the Third Era

At the edges of Rancho Nuevo

"Storm's coming."

"The movie tropes game meets on Tuesday nights, friend. What are you drinking?"

"When is a Tuesday night?" asked the stranger.

"No idea. What are you drinking?"

"I think you know," said the stranger as he took off his hat.

"I know you..."

"Of course you do, you all do. I came in to get out of the storm."

"What storm?"

"Sky is thick with red riders. They're about to do a little demolition and I don't think they intend to spare your little pub."

Blackjack watched the stranger closely. He didn't blink, he just smiled and looked around, scoping out the patrons.

"What are you doing here?" Blackjack asked him.

"Came in to get out of the storm."

"No one comes to the Blackjack Saloon to get out of the rain. Once you find your way here, you never leave."

"Your point is moot since the riders are about to reset the board." The stranger looked around the room, smiled, and then turned back with a shot of tequila in his hand the barkeep couldn't remember pouring. "I haven't been able to drink any of this in a long time, so don't mind if I do."

He savored the shot of tequila and threw the glass over his shoulder with a shrug.

"How are you here in the third era?" Blackjack asked after having a sudden realization of who he was talking to.

"Had to. Hacked the system."

"How? Why?"

"Needed to. It was the only way to do it, and then it took me three decades to figure out how I did it. Kind of a chicken and the egg kind of thing, but never mind that. I figured since time in Rancho Nuevo is more or less cyclical, why couldn't I reroute the waking world in the same sort of way. I thought I'd have a drink with you before the show begins."

"What exactly are you going to do?"

"I've seen a lot of movies. You would have figured it out before now if you'd seen Pale Rider or any of those kind of western movies. Well, if you could remember having seen them before, because," the stranger said as he picked up a cowboy hat off the bar and put it on, "you are me and we are him and I am the Walrus and so forth. Catch you on the other side, friend. I have an infinity loop to set in motion."

*  *  *  *  *

Don't run away, it is only me... don't be afraid of what you can't see... it is only me... 

"Can I help you with something?"

In the shuffling madness

of the locomotive breath

Runs the all-time loser

Headlong to his death

"No, I'm all set."

It was the final conversation, and it was with the clerk of a CVS, hurried so he wouldn't have to talk to anyone because of what he was about to do. It was a long time planned, and the final piece had come into play. The final rejection had come, and it proved to him that his life was a failure, he was of no value to anyone, and the only effect he had on people was to make them angry and disappointed in him. He had failed in life and he could bear the pain no longer. It had been building up for too long with no relief. No matter where he reached, the cupboard was bare, faces turned away, and people were tired of listening to him complain and go on about the pointlessness of it all. In the end there would be no one, which made it easier to plan to not be interrupted as he took the carefully prepared steps to end his miserable life.

A fondness for sweeping epics had given him the impetus to select music to frame his descent into death via overdose. The music would remind him of things he'd later be glad to remember.

A broken raft on a jungle river... burning jungles at both shores... people running from the flames calling to him for help... there was nothing he could do... he was going to need a bigger boat...

A dragon who could propel non-existent sails...a brilliant all-consuming light... desert wasteland... the sense this was not a dream...

A speck in the distance that got closer much more rapidly than it should have... a lone figure sitting on a folding chair in the middle of the desert...

*  *  *  *  *

As the red riders prepared to destroy Rancho Nuevo, the stranger walked out of the Blackjack Saloon and into the suddenly golden sunlight that cut through the darkening clouds.

"Nice effect, thanks to whoever runs that department," said the stranger with a tip of the hat towards the sky. "Now, where can I find a metal folding chair around here..."

"How are you getting through that, buddy?" asked the fixture toothless old timer on the porch as he pointed through the massive wall of red riders on all sides of them.

"I brought something for that," smiled the stranger. "Ever seen thirteen queens?"

Bring the beat back...

"What does he think he's doing?"

The queens looked at each other. "He's sitting down on that stupid chair."

"Jack, why are you sitting down? We haven't even--"

"We have company," the Jack told them, pointing behind them. "That looks like one of my favorite seraphim."

"You're too late, Jack. The realm is already on fire."

"Yeah, saw the blue flame. Pretty, isn't it? Blue flame. Kind of gimmicky, too, but who am I to judge. Nope, doesn't matter. As long as I have my chair. And besides, as long as I'm in your era, I'm never late, I'm always early. See you all on the other end."

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